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Q & A with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto

Morimoto Napa

Who doesn’t know the name Masaharu Morimoto?  He was everyone’s favorite competitor on the original, Japanese cooking show, Iron Chef, and continues to be just as popular on its Food Network spinoff, Iron Chef America.  Morimoto introduced America to an entirely new brand of Asian fusion with his restaurant Morimoto (which currently has outposts in Philadelphia, Florida and NYC), dreaming up dishes like “Duck, Duck, Duck” — a trio of Peking-style duck leg, a duck egg, and a roast duck sandwich made with a foie gras-infused croissant — as well as Rock Shrimp Tempura, glazed in a sauce inspired by Buffalo Chicken Wings.  And the list of respected chefs he’s mentored is a mile long, from Dale Talde of Talde in Brooklyn to Chris Jaeckle of the upcoming All’Onda in Union Square.

So what’s taken the celebrity chef so long to open Tribeca Canvas, which (believe it or not) is only his second restaurant in New York?  “New York is my home, and I’ve always wanted to open a second restaurant here,” Morimoto assures.  “I just wanted to make sure we spent enough time working on the bistro-style concept of Tribeca Canvas, ensuring that it would be different from all of my other restaurants.”

An American-Japanese bistro?  We’re game.  Tribeca Canvas is certainly more scaled down than his eponymous, notably sleek sushi palace in Chelsea, with its water-bottle walls and $125 omakase tasting menus.  Instead, this 65-seat bistro is outfitted as an ode to the neighborhood’s flourishing art scene, with five floor-to-ceiling canvases decorated with black, hand-painted trees and little else.  And instead of spare plates of pristine raw fish, the menu concentrates on classic Western comfort foods.  Not that you should expect diner-style burgers and fries (this is Morimoto, after all).  Each dish is thoroughly transformed through the use of Japanese ingredients, and elevated by the chef’s unimpeachable technique.  Think Goat Cheese-stuffed Shishito Poppers, Wagyu Shepherd’s Pie and Poached Quail Egg-topped Mac & Cheese, along with new brunch items like Duck Gyoza Hash and his interpretation of Bagel & Lox, served with house-smoked salmon, soft scrambled egg and Tokyo scallion cream cheese.

“I’ve lived in New York for 28 years, so I’ve grown accustomed to the American comfort and soul food that locals like to eat,” says Morimoto.  “However, I’ve been known forever as a sushi chef, and I wanted to challenge myself and break out of this comfort zone!”

Although you’re constantly working and in the public eye, you’ve been happily married to your wife for over 30 years.  What has made your relationship so successful?
When I’m not in the restaurant, I am at home or walking around NYC with my wife.  She likes to cook for me at home and we can spend that quiet time alone together.

At Tribeca Canvas, you’ve drawn inspiration from guilty pleasures, like Jalapeno Poppers, Tater Tots and Nachos.  How did you go about tweaking and elevating  them?
I’ve taken what I view as classic American comfort foods – Nachos, Fried Chicken, Jalapeno Poppers – and have transformed them with Japanese culinary techniques and ingredients.  For example, the Shrimp Nachos at Tribeca Canvas are shrimp tempura nachos with spicy gochujang aioli sauce.

What are some of your favorite dishes on Tribeca Canvas’s menu right now?
I just launched a new summer menu at Tribeca Canvas and it’s been great to create new and exciting dishes that diners at the restaurant haven’t seen yet.  Some highlights are new dishes, such as the Miso Sea Bass with barley, English peas and pickled ramps, and the Uni Carbonara with pancetta, quail egg and kizami nori.  I’ve also kept some of my original favorites on the menu, like the crispy Fried Chicken Kara Age with ginger-jalapeno dipping sauce.

Jamison Blankenship, your former chef de cuisine at Morimoto, once told us that he threw up before informing you that he was leaving to open Chuko in Brooklyn.  Do you remember what your reaction was to the news?
Wow!  Of course, I was upset when Jamison decided to leave Morimoto, but very proud of him as well.  He worked hard for me over the years and I was proud to see him move on to open his own restaurant.

I would imagine that you serve as a mentor for many of your chefs.  What is one of the most important lessons that you always try and teach them?
The best piece of advice that I can give is to love what you do.  If you love to cook and love to eat, the rest will fall into place. Techniques and ingredients will change, but chefs need passion to succeed.

How would you describe your style as a leader in the kitchen? 
I hope that I am teaching and inspiring the younger chefs and cooks around me.  I like to run an organized and efficient kitchen, while still creating a somewhat relaxed atmosphere and sense of humor.

What made you originally decide to help bring Iron Chef to America, and are you happy with the American version?
I think that the American version of Iron Chef is great.  It’s a more modern version and features a wider range of top chefs from all over the world.   It’s great for viewers to see chefs that they recognize and admire compete against each other.

How seriously did you take winning and losing on the show?  Was it fun for you either way, or did you get really competitive?
The show is fun either way.  Of course, everyone gets competitive and it’s very nerve-racking!  Because I’ve been on it so many times, I try to create new and different things each time.  It’s hard to create and execute so many new dishes within an hour!  At the end of the day, however, it’s just friendly competition with other members of the industry.

Which “secret ingredients” did you have the hardest time with and why? 
Secret ingredients are never easy!  I think the hardest would probably be certain vegetables, as well as tougher meats that you aren’t necessarily given the right equipment for.

What are some of your favorite spots to go to for Japanese food in New York, besides your own?
My favorite place to eat Japanese food is my wife’s cooking in my kitchen at home!  After spending so much time in my restaurants, I rarely eat out or cook at home.  My wife watches after my health, so she cooks light dishes with a lot of protein – fish, rice, tofu, etc.

After all of these years of opening restaurants, what would you say have become your signature dishes?
I have several dishes that diners consider to be “signature dishes,” like the Tuna Pizza, Toro Tartare, and Rock Shrimp Tempura. 

You’ve opened restaurants all over the world.  What excites you specifically about the New York dining scene?
The NYC dining scene is like no other city in the world.  There’s every type of cuisine here, from American to Japanese to Italian to Mexican, and diners are excited about trying new things and experiencing different cultures.  It’s also an extremely fast-paced city, so it’s a challenge to keep up with the changing culinary landscape.

If you had to single out the one greatest personal achievement in your career, what would it be, and why? 
I think that my greatest achievement has been opening each restaurant and spreading my personal cuisine and inspiration throughout different countries throughout the world.

What’s next on the horizon for you?  Any more food TV in your future?
Next up are restaurants in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, as well as at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort and Spa in Maui!

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